The opinion of the court was delivered by: LEAHY
At 6:15 on the morning of July 11, 1940, the tug "Trenton" left her slip between Piers L and M, on the Jersey side of the Hudson River and proceeded across stream at half-speed, bound for Pier 29 on the Manhattan side; her course was shaped toward Pier 32, which was 225 yards above Pier 29. When near mid-channel, she stopped to permit the motor vessel "Seatrain New Jersey" to cross her bow and continue upstream. Shortly thereafter, the Trenton collided with the "Big Chief" which had also been proceeding upstream.
Certain facts may be assumed in connection with this collision either because they are admitted or because they are conclusively proved. The Big Chief was bound for Pier 4, Hoboken, New Jersey, on a voyage from Phillipsdale, Rhode Island. After rounding the Battery, the master of the Big Chief encountered the Seatrain New Jersey and commenced to follow her up the river about a quarter of a mile astern and at half-speed (six knots an hour). Meantime, two tugs were proceeding across the river from the Hoboken to the New York side. One was the Trenton with a loaded car-float in tow on her starboard; the other -- 200 feet further up the river and to the Trenton's port -- was the Cleveland with a pile driver in tow. As the Seatrain New Jersey approached the tugs, they stopped to let her pass, and she cleared their bows by about 100 feet. With engines stopped, the Trenton and her car-float completely lost headway and, although headed at an angle upstream, she began drifting downstream with the tide. After the Seatrain New Jersey had passed, the tug Cleveland gave a two whistle signal, which was severally interpreted by the Trenton as indicating an intention to cross her bow and by the Big Chief as indicating an intention to cross hers. Shortly after this was given, the master of the Trenton put his engines full speed ahead and his rudder hard right. A minute later, the bow of the Big Chief crashed approximately head-on into the starboard side of the car-float, somewhat aft of its midships section -- despite the fact that the engines of the Big Chief had been thrown full speed astern about one or two minutes before the collision. No signals were exchanged at any time between the Trenton and the Big Chief. On the morning of the collision, the weather was clear -- visibility, three and a half miles. The wind was west at eleven miles an hour; a strong ebb tide was running at two knots an hour.
These, then, are the "master facts"
in the light of which I must examine the contentions of the parties.
Libellants' contention is simply that the Big Chief was the privileged vessel
with the right -- in fact, the duty -- to maintain her course and speed
and that she did so until the Trenton ran across her path and collision became inevitable. The Big Chief came into collision with the car-float on the latter's starboard side, apparently head on at a point between her third and fourth cleats. The fifth cleat was about in the midship section.
For respondent, the master of the Trenton testified that, immediately after he stopped his tug to let the Seatrain New Jersey pass, he looked down the river and saw the Big Chief "heading toward the stern of the car float." He allowed his tug to lose headway, and she drifted downstream with the ebb tide -- stern first. Thereafter, on receiving the Cleveland's whistle signal, he left his wheel, leaned out the window on the starboard side of the pilot house, and saw the Big Chief about 200 feet away and "heading for the after end of my tow." Despite his efforts to escape, the collision followed about a minute later.
1. As a consequence of the downstream drift of the Trenton, the Big Chief became an overtaking vessel with the duty
to keep out of the way of the Trenton.
2. Even though the Big Chief was the privileged vessel under the starboard hand rule, she failed in her duty to maintain her course (to the stern of the Trenton and her car-float) by changing her course to her starboard and directly into the car-float.
3. The Big Chief could have avoided the collision by swinging hard to port around the stern of the car-float; but instead she veered from two to three points (22 1/2 degrees to 33 3/4 degrees) starboard with the result that the bow of the Big Chief seduously followed the Trenton's car-float which was attempting to lift her stern away from the Big Chief.
Once the master of the Trenton -- who also served as lookout
-- became aware of the presence of the Big Chief on his starboard, he had the duty of keeping clear of her. Even though he thought she was proceeding to his stern toward the Hoboken shore, he should have realized that judgments as to speed, distance, and direction are unreliable when made on the water -- particularly when made from the angle which the Trenton had at that time assumed.
Indeed, his subsequent actions show that he did not believe that the Big Chief was going to clear his stern with ease, for, when he believed the Cleveland wanted to cross the Trenton's bow and had accordingly given him two short blasts of signal, the Trenton stopped her engines
but did not answer or honor the Cleveland's signal. On the contrary, Fitzpatrick again looked out the window of his pilot house to see if the Big Chief had passed, or would pass, sufficiently clear of his stern so that he could reverse "in case he [the Cleveland] did not make clear of me." I can find little, if any, justification for the Trenton's reliance on so narrow a margin of safety in her navigation.
It is significant that at this point, Captain Fitzpatrick, becoming alarmed, put his engines full speed ahead and his wheel full right, in an attempt to cross the Big Chief's bow and go around her. As a matter of fact, however, by so doing he placed his car-float directly across the ...